The Taste

By JESSICA SEYMOUR | Published: May 14, 2009

Stevens ducked quickly behind the freezer as bullets whizzed past. They ricocheted off the wall, whistling through his hair as he moved. The pistol slipped in his sweaty hand. He clutched the wound in his leg, blood oozing through his fingers

He fumbled for the radio, desperate for backup. A bullet grazed his shoulder. He cried out. Behind him, the gunman laughed, high and cold.

“You sick fuck.” he gasped, “You sick, disgusting fuck.”

Another rain of bullets. Did he hear me? Stevens thought as he ducked down further, holding his arms above his head for cover.

He groped for the radio again, looking around the freezer to get a better look at the gunman, only to duck again to dodge more slugs. His shoulder burned.

More shots whizzed over his head. The freezer took most of them, but he didn’t trust it to provide good enough protection for long.

Nothing else for it, Stevens thought. He closed his eyes, took a breath, and rounded on the shooter.

*

“Autopsy on John Doe number one-eighty-seven. April 28, 2009. Three-thirty in the afternoon. Body discovered at approximately one-forty-seven. Medical examiner in charge, Doctor Anthony Clement. Also present, Lieutenant Alexander Hale and Sergeant Matthew Stevens.”

Dr Clement paced around the autopsy table, droning into the dictaphone. The two cops shifted uncomfortably in the corner.

“Beginning external examination.”

The body stank to high heaven, left for hours to rot. The maggots were removed from the corpse and kept in the lab. They got most of the face, the eyes and the soft skin of the neck.

Sergeant Matt Stevens cringed at the sight. He didn’t want to look at the rest of John Doe. Where the arms were cut off just below the elbow.

Dr Clement passed his gloved fingers over the wounds. Thick, white hair framed his ruddy face as he squinted through his glasses. “The body was frozen for at least a few hours, and left to thaw before it was dumped. Blood haemorrhaging in the wounds indicate the victim was still alive when the hands were removed.” he said.

Stevens winced. No one paid him any mind. They were all intent on Mr Doe.

They found him in an industrial bin behind a petrol station in Ultimo. The station attendant got one hell of a shock when he opened it. Apparently, you could hear his screams in Five Dock. John Doe was naked as the day God made him, lying amongst the paper towels and food scraps.

Dr Clement drew the officers’ attention to a tattoo on the dead man’s ankle. A tribal design, very faded and blurred with age. Probably untraceable. Every man and his dog had a tribal design tattooed somewhere on their body those days. Even Stevens had one on his right thigh. It could be a fertility symbol or directions to the beach for all he knew. But it looked good when he got it. Now it was washed out and dull, the years taking their toll on the ink.

Stevens hid a yawn behind his hand. Lieutenant Hale noticed this time, throwing him a disapproving look before focussing back in the corpse. Seemingly without thinking, Hale’s thumb drifted up to his mouth. He sucked, until he realised what he was doing and hastily pulled it out. Stevens pretended not to notice.

“Rigor mortis has passed,” the doctor continued, moving back to the head, “The body has flushed its system. Victim has been dead at least thirty-six hours. Liver mortis on the back and buttocks indicate the victim was left in the sitting position for several hours after he was killed.”

Lieutenant Hale shook his head, lips pursed, staring at the body. Stevens got the impression that he was silently demanding John Doe tell them who the killer was. If the Lieutenant fixed Stevens with that look, dead or alive, Stevens would sing like a canary.

A call came for Lieutenant Hale through his radio. The static made Dr Clement jump. Hale either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He went into the hallway to talk, leaving Stevens and the doctor alone with Mr Doe.

Stevens edged closer to the table, insane curiosity battling with his gag reflex. He’d seen plenty of autopsies, but they never got easier. Stevens didn’t like seeing human beings hacked to pieces like pigs, not even in the name of catching their killer. Isn’t that why he became a cop? To stop autopsies from happening in the first place?

He rubbed his arms absently. The exam room was constantly air conditioned, and every time Stevens set foot inside, he felt like he was dipping his toe into the ocean before taking a dive.

Humans shouldn’t be kept here, Stevens thought. Even if it’s just their corpses.

Apparently, during the storms the week before, the morgue lost electricity. There were massive blackouts all over Sydney. Power was cut, air conditioning stopped working, and it only took an hour before the un-embalmed bodies started to go ripe.

Stevens stopped just at John Doe’s feet, watching as Dr Clement took stock of any scars or distinguishing features. There weren’t many. The body looked and smelled as though it was thoroughly cleaned before it was dumped.

Mr Doe’s face was lined, his thin lips blue, his cheeks pallid. Dr Clement moved to the left, the light on his glasses reflected onto Mr Doe’s forearm. Imagine, Stevens thought as his eyes were drawn involuntarily to the stump. Imagine losing your arms while you’re alive.

Stevens hoped the bastard who killed him at least had the decency to knock him out before he started cutting.

Wait. Stevens squinted his eyes and moved a smidge closer to the dead man’s arms. The cuts on the skin were very neat. Like the killer used a ruler to measure.

“Dr Clement?” Stevens asked, cutting the doctor off in his narration.

“Yes, Sergeant?” he said.

“What are these marks on the bone?” he asked, pointing at the grooves. Straight ridged, carved from one side to the other. Very close together. He almost didn’t notice them.

Dr Clement’s eyebrows knitted together. He moved around until he stood next to Stevens. “Do you see them?” Stevens said, “They’re even sliced through the marrow.”

Dr Clement looked very confused for a moment. Then he smiled. A diamond shone in his left incisor tooth. He reached up, removed his glasses, and gave them a good clean on his shirt.

“They’re saw marks. They’re from whatever instrument was used to remove the hands.” he said, replacing his glasses and peering down. He quickly snatched up his dictaphone and switched the recorder on, narrating this latest discovery.

Stevens nodded. Whatever blade was used, it looked pretty bloody sharp.

Lieutenant Hale stuck his head through the door, “Dr Clement,” he said, “I think we’ve found your missing arms.”

*

The arms, as it turned out, were dumped a few streets away from the Ultimo petrol station where the body was found. In a garbage bin outside a convenience store.

Lieutenant Hale parked on the curb and got out, nodding for Stevens to follow.

“Plans for this weekend, Matt?” the Lieutenant asked. It was the oldest, most predictable conversation starter in the book.

Lieutenant Hale always referred to Stevens by his first name. He was assigned to work with the Lieutenant over a week ago, and they were still sizing each other up. They circled each other, like dogs, waiting to see which one would take the first bite. Stevens heard rumours that the Lieutenant was starting to lose it. Forgetting things, acting strangely. People reckoned he was fishing for early retirement.

“Bondi.” Stevens said finally, “Maybe Maroubra, if the surf’s alright. You?”

“Soccer and hockey training.” The Lieutenant had two daughters. One had some disease. Stevens couldn’t remember what it was, or even which girl it was. The Lieutenant spent most of his paycheck every week on hospitals and junk. The rest, from what Stevens could gather, went towards fancy restaurants.

John Doe’s arms lay open and welcoming on the foot path, protected from the concrete by a thin sheet of plastic. They were attracting attention from the gawking public. It’s not every day you get to see dismembered body parts on your way home from work.

It’s even more of a novelty when all that’s left of them are the bones.

“What the fuck?” Stevens breathed, kneeling down to get a better look.

“Can we get these people out of here!” the Lieutenant barked to no one in particular, “For Christ’s sake, this is a crime scene!”

The skeletal hands were frozen in position on the ground, like a typist’s fingers. The flesh was completely stripped, the muscle gone. Only little pieces of loose skin and gristle remained around the finger joints.

At the Lieutenant’s command, the crowd started to thin. The Lieutenant was short, beefy and threatening – like a pitbull terrier. Stevens was solid, but not imposing. Next to his partner, Stevens looked like pussy cat. And he knew it.

Once, in the cafeteria of the station, Stevens noticed the Lieutenant carefully placing strips of foi gras on his sandwich. The thought of eating liver made Stevens’ face go green, but apparently it was a delicacy. The Lieutenant thought of himself as a connoisseur.

Stevens and the Lieutenant transported John Doe’s arms back to the morgue, to reunite them with his body. Dr Clement was waiting eagerly. Stevens shivered when they came into the room, the heat from outside making the air conditioning more jarring.

“Blackouts give you grief, Lieutenant?” Stevens asked conversationally.

Lieutenant Hale looked sharply at Stevens and nodded, “Yes, the freezer in the shed melted. Spoiled the chops left over from ANZAC day. Bloody waste.”

Dr Clement laughed, before lifting the meatless bones carefully out of the carry case. He held them up to the light.

“Definitely male. The cut marks on the bone look similar,” he said, “I’ll need more time to be definitive, but I’d say these are John Doe’s arms.”

“What are the odds of them not being his?” Stevens asked.

“Higher than you’d think.” Lieutenant Hale replied, “But we’ll take the Doc’s word on this one.” His mouth was set in a grim line. He watched the doctor examine the bones with unusual thoughtfulness.

“By the way,” Dr Clement said, looking over at Stevens and the Lieutenant, “I’ve ordered a drug and poison test. He was dead before he bled out, but he was alive when the arms were removed. It wasn’t cyanide, I know that much. I’d smell it if it were.”

“I thought cyanide didn’t have a smell.” Stevens said.

“Not to most people.” Dr Clement replied, returning his attention to the arms in his hands, “It’s a genetic trait, being able to smell cyanide. Only fifty per cent of humans can do it.”

That must come in handy, Stevens thought, “What’s it smell like?” he asked.

The doctor grinned at him, “Walnuts.” he said. He rolled the arm over and paused, squinting at one of the finger bones. “Hang on.” he said.

Stevens perked up.

Dr Clement groped for his dictaphone, “External examination of victim’s left arm shows cut marks along with bone consistent with flesh and muscle being carved away. Some marks are inconsistent with both carving and the saw marks left when the arm was removed. They look like...” he squinted at the arm, “Teeth marks. Sharp incisors.”

“Dingoes?”” Stevens asked.

“Not this far into the city.” the Lieutenant snapped. His hands were set on his hips in a defensive position. Stevens saw a vein pulsing in his head.

The doctor shook his head, “No,” he said slowly, “They don’t look like dog canines. They have double cusped patterns, like a chimp. But there are only four incisors here. Chimps have six.” Stevens moved around to look over Dr Clement’s shoulder. There, he thought. Half a centimetre from the knuckle bone. Something had gnawed on the bone. Like corn on the cob.

“Rabbit?” Stevens ventured. Dr Clement muttered something Stevens couldn’t make out. He reached over to the lamp on the desk and switched it on, holding the hand under the light.

His mouth dropped open, “They’re human.” he said.

The Lieutenant visibly blanched, shoving Stevens out of the way to get a look over Dr Clement’s shoulder. He squeezed his hands into fists, as if to hold himself back from tearing the bones out of the doctor’s hands to get a better look.

“Are you sure, how do you know?” he demanded quickly.

Dr Clement held the bones closer for the Lieutenant to see, “The teeth form a continuous arch. The only animals with that kind of pattern are humans.”

“A fucking cannibal?” Stevens said.

“That’s right.” Dr Clement said grimly. Lieutenant Hale backed away from the doctor and the arm. He grew paler with every step. “The flesh was carved off,” Dr Clement continued, “Then the killer gnawed the remaining meat off the bone.”

“So,” Stevens said, “Someone sawed off John Doe’s arm, cooked him and ate him?”

Dr Clement looked carefully at the bones, and shook his head, “There’s no indication that the arm was cooked.” he said.

Stevens swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. Lieutenant Hale chewed his lip and focussed on the ground, shifting from one foot to the other. Stevens looked at him curiously. Stevens himself felt like running to the nearest bathroom, but he never thought the Lieutenant would lose his lunch over anything. Not even something like this.

“On the plus side,” Dr Clement said after a beat, “We may be able identify the killer.”

The Lieutenant looked up sharply, “What?” he said.

“Oh yes.” Dr Clement replied, placing the arms carefully onto the exam table beside John Doe, “We won’t get a complete impression, but we’ll get somewhere in the ballpark. You can run them through the Dental Society.”

Stevens nodded slowly, a smile beginning to form on his care-worn face, “Can you take an impression now?” he asked.

“I can have one ready within the hour.”

There was a loud crash behind them. Stevens spun around, fingers twitching toward the gun on his hip. No one was there. The door had slammed shut. Lieutenant Hale was gone.

*

Hale made it all the way to his house in Redfern before Stevens caught up with him. He parked his car and ran straight for the shed. Stevens followed.

The shed was small, most of the space taken up by an industrial sized freezer. Tools lined the walls, including several saws varying in size. The floor dipped down to a drain in the centre of the room. Hale stood on it, gun raised.

“Matt.” he said, nodding.

Stevens froze, “Lieutenant.” He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.

“Did you call for backup?” Hale asked. Stevens shook his head. Hale cocked an eyebrow, “Why not?” he asked, “It’s standard protocol.”

“I was hoping you would come quietly.” Stevens said. “I was hoping we could talk. I don’t need backup to talk to you, Lieutenant.”

Hale shook his head, “I’ve got to pack.” he said simply.

“Did you really kill him?” Stevens asked.

Hale nodded, “I know you can’t understand it, Matt. You don’t need to. I don’t need to justify myself to you.”

“You ate a man.” Stevens said simply.

“That’s very close-minded.” Hale countered.

Stevens stared incredulously at him, “You killed a man, carved him up, and ate him raw.”

“It’s no different from sushi.” Hale replied, “In fact, human meat tastes a shit load better than sushi. The taste of human flesh is rather unique. You really should try it sometime.”

Stevens was appalled. “Can you justify it to your family?” he asked, “When you have to leave them to run away?”

“They’ll understand.” Hale said, “They always do. He wasn’t anybody important; I always make sure of that. Just a homeless man, who thought he was going to score, no different from the others. Heroin looks pretty much the same as insulin.”

“Insulin?”

“Insulin.” Hale repeated, “It’s already in the body, so it leaves no trace. You give it to a healthy person and their blood sugar levels crash. The brain needs constant nutrition, the person slips into unconsciousness.”

“And eventually dies?”

“Yes, basically.” Hale drew a deep breath. “And of course the meat isn’t poisoned in any way. It’s safe to eat.” Diabetes, Stevens thought with sudden clarity. That’s what the Lieutenant’s youngest daughter suffered from.

He sized Stevens up, trying to decide which body part to shoot. Stevens thought quickly.

“Why did you dump the body in Ultimo? Why did you even dump it at all?”

“I know. It’s a waste, isn’t it?” Hale said, “I know, I know. I disgust you, don’t I?” Stevens nodded. There was nothing else for him to do. Hale smiled, “I think I have a Prion Disease. I looked it up on the internet. It affects the brain. Eating raw human flesh causes it. Interesting thought, isn’t it? I couldn’t care less.” He shifted from one foot to the other. A dog barked in one of the neighbouring backyards, making both Stevens and the Lieutenant jump.

Stevens eyed Hale’s trigger finger apprehensively, but it didn’t squeeze. He was safe for the moment, even though he could tell Hale was holding onto his sanity by a thread. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated, sweat pouring down his cheeks and dripping into the drain at his feet.

“It was the blackouts that fucked it all up.” he continued, “The meat defrosted. It wouldn’t have been any good anyway, even if it didn’t stink. The wife didn’t like the smell. And in my addled state of mind, it was completely logical to just dump it in the garbage. Don’t ask me why! I know. I just wasn’t thinking clearly that day.”

Stevens bit back his agreement.

The sound of tires rolling over gravel drifted through the open window. Hale held the gun pointedly at Stevens’ chest, and moved over to the window. He looked out and relaxed visibly, “Wife’s home.” he said.

As an afterthought, he shot Stevens in the leg.

He collapsed, crying out and clutching his leg. He gasped as the pain struck him, wave after wave, blood oozing out of his uniform and dripping onto the concrete floor. Outside, a woman shrieked.

“Sorry about that!” Hale said, actually visibly wincing when he saw the blood, “It’s nothing personal. I just really wanted to do that.” He spun around and barked out the window, “Sally, honey, could you get your insulin out of the kitchen and leave it on the counter for me?”

Stevens took a chance. While Hale’s back was turned he whipped out his own weapon and pulled the trigger.

Hale threw his head back, howling like a wounded dog. Stevens got him in the thigh. He was aiming for the shoulder. Adrenalin made his hands shake and his eyes water. Hale swung his arm around and fired.

Stevens ducked and made for the freezer, half-crawling, half-dragging himself behind it for protection. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Hale barked a cruel laugh.

“You sick fuck.” he gasped, the relevance of the insulin finally hitting him. The reason Hale, in his diseased mind, wanted Stevens dead. What he would do with Stevens’ body. “You sick, disgusting fuck.”

Hale fired another few slugs at the freezer. Stevens screwed up his face against the barrage, holding his hands around his head. Nothing else for it, Stevens thought. He took a breath, closed his eyes, and rounded on the Lieutenant.

He squeezed the trigger, once, then twice. One bullet missed. The other buried itself in the Lieutenant’s shoulder.

Then he heard it, as if through a tunnel. The slow, insistent whine of a police siren.

The bullet knocked Hale back a few steps. He landed hard on his arse, his left arm flung out to break his fall and knocking a couple of paint cans over on the way.

Stevens limped around the freezer to cover him, ignoring the burning pain in his leg. Hale stared up at him, eyes wide against the sirens growing louder with every second.

“You said you didn’t call for backup!” he moaned, biting back against the pain.

Stevens stood calmly over the Lieutenant, panting slightly, gun raised and ready, “I lied.”



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